January 2, 2013

(Scott Olson Getty Images)

The suburban New York-based Journal News published on Dec. 23 a story headlined “The gun owner next door: What you don’t know about the weapons in your neighborhood.” It also published a map listing the names and addresses of all pistol permit holders in the New York counties of Westchester and Rockland. The map alone prompted a level of outrage that all but dominated the media-criticism  world over the holidays. Herewith a look at Journal News’s four mistakes:

Mistake No. 1: Here’s Our Statement!: A word of advice for Westchester County Executive Robert P. Astorino. And for Westchester County Clerk Timothy Idoni. And for Rockland County Sheriff Louis Falco. And for Rockland County District 17 Legislator Nancy Low-Hogan: If the Journal News has some tough questions for you, don’t answer. Just issue a say-nothing statement and clam up.

Because that’s precisely what the Journal News has done in the aftermath of its gun story-cum-map. A much-passed-around statement from Janet Hasson, president and publisher of the Journal News Media Group, offers this explanation for the story:

“Frequently, the work of journalists is not popular. One of our roles is to report publicly available information on timely issues, even when unpopular. We knew publication of the database (as well as the accompanying article providing context) would be controversial, but we felt sharing information about gun permits in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings.

The Erik Wemple Blog has attempted on several occasions to pry more feedback out of the Journal News, to no effect. “No interviews,” wrote a Journal News staffer in response to a request last week from this blog. No response to another attempt made today. A news organization that behaves this way doesn’t deserve to gather the news.

Mistake No. 2: The story! The backlash against the Journal News stems in large part from its mildly interactive map. But has anyone bothered to read the accompanying story?

Didn’t think so.

It’s five Web pages of mumbo-jumbo about public-records laws, about how much permit information can be shared, about how many Westchesterites have target-shooting permits, about how Putnam County would need some more time to respond to a Journal News records request. Stuff like that.

In other words, the Journal News does the most boring thing possible with the records, which is to talk about how they’re procured and regulated. James Grimaldi, an investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal, believes that the records should open to the public, which has a right to know about permit holders. Not that the Journal News piece offers an argument for why: “Really, it is a data dump with little analysis,” notes Grimaldi. “They should have looked to see what the patterns are. Any criminals who got guns and shouldn’t have them? School teachers? Preachers? I’d run the list against other databases — get creative. Vs. other licenses? School bus drivers? Taxi drivers? Grocers? Seems an opportunity lost.” Al Tompkins of Poynter.org has advanced this very argument.

Oh, and about Putnam County: It’s not giving up the records, after all. County Clerk Dennis Sant said in a statement: “There is the rule of law, and there is right and wrong, and the Journal News is clearly wrong. I could not live with myself if one Putnam pistol permit holder was put in harm’s way, for the sole purpose of selling newspapers.” Had the Journal News put its data through even the most minimal act of journalistic processing, perhaps Sant wouldn’t have such a talking point. That he does is a setback for public accountability.

Mistake No. 3: The map! Why would anybody protest being placed on the Journal News “interactive” maps? These things are balky, slow and unhelpful in every way imaginable. Citizens may just as easily file their own records requests as click around on the Journal News gun-map page.

Mistake No. 4: Naivete: The Rockland County Times reports:

According to police reports on public record, Journal News Rockland Editor Caryn A. McBride was alarmed by the volume of “negative correspondence,” namely an avalanche of phone calls and emails to the Journal News office, following the newspaper’s publishing of a map of all pistol permit holders in Rockland and Westchester.

You publish the names of registered permit holders;

You publish the names of registered permit holders in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre;

You publish the names of registered permit holders in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre without offering a compelling link between those two things;

And then you’re surprised that the whole world is e-mailing you?

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.